When Brian Coppola was still a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he realized that there weren’t many resources for PhD students who wanted professional development for their future careers. “I got particularly interested in what was not going on for professional development," he said. "There was really nothing, except for ‘get in the lab and get your work done.’
“While I was still at Wisconsin, I happened to get involved with a student in the Education Department on a side project, and the first notion that occurred to me was that we need to spend more time doing things for people who were thinking about academic careers.”
After joining Michigan Chemistry, Coppola acted on that insight. Within a few years of starting his faculty position in the department, he began acting on his commitment to prepare students to discover the workforce. It led him to start two programs: CSIE|UM and CALC|UM -- pronounced like the periodic elements cesium and calcium, respectively. These programs help students find exposure to and professional development for post-graduate school careers.
Coppola’s work advising and mentoring students through these programs has earned him Rackham’s Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award, which honors five professors out of 180 departments. The award winners must be “outstanding mentors of doctoral students, who support their intellectual, creative, scholarly, and professional growth and foster a culture of intellectual engagement in which they thrive.”
“When I came to Michigan,” Prof. Coppola recalled, “it was within a few years that I was here, I started to put some early versions of things like ‘CSIE|UM’ in place. We decided to make it real and a department institution.”
In naming the groups, Prof. Coppola explained that “it was a graduate student who came up with the elemental acronym. [The student] said something like ‘Why don’t we just add a “University of Michigan’ at the end? We have lots of elements that have ‘UM’ as the last two letters.”
The elemental naming system stuck, and Chemical Sciences at the Interface of Education | University of Michigan was born, with the goal of preparing students for academic positions. Several years later, CALC|UM Chemistry Aligned with Life & Career | University of Michigan was formed, which exposes students to careers outside of the academy (industry, government, policy, and science writing, just to name a few possibilities). These two programs bring speakers and workshop leaders to campus to cover topics such as writing Diversity Statements or designing online courses. Site visits to Hope College and other academic institutions, as well as Dow and other industrial visits are also offered.
Most recently, Coppola named an alumni organizing committee after another element Alum|NUM: Alumni Networking at the University of Michigan, the official name for a program started several years ago in coordination with the Karle Symposium. Each year, an alumni panel and mixer is combined with resume workshops and practice interviews to prepare students for the job search that comes upon graduation. The large and varied Michigan Chemistry alumni network helps students find connections with desired career paths.
“I feel terrific that the department nominated me for the Excellence in Graduate Mentoring Award because it recognizes a nontraditional idea about graduate mentoring,” Coppola said. “It was all about these programs, and that the mentoring is an extended institutional way of encouragement that people can support.”
His advice for other professors who want to work on their mentoring is to follow his “management style,” he said. “It’s very simple: Encourage people. Support people. Find out what they need. Then, get out of their way. Let them do their work.
“That means: Have the dialogue, and let’s engage in what decisions you want to make,” he added.
Coppola’s influence has been felt around the department. UM Assistant Professor Ginger Shultz, who does research on and teaches Chemistry Education, was a postdoctoral fellow with Coppola. She recounted his influence on her career trajectory in a recent article, “I wouldn’t be doing Chem Ed if not for Brian,” she said.
Likewise, students active students in CSIE|UM and CALC|UM appreciate Coppola’s efforts to prepare them for future careers. "Brian gives us a great deal of freedom to schedule seminars and workshops that interest us,” noted Janelle Kirsch, fourth-year from the Wolfe lab who has been very involved in the programs.
Daniel Nasrallah, fourth-year organic chemistry student in assistant professor Corinna Schindler’s lab, explained that these program are unique—setting Michigan Chemistry apart from other universities. “These programs expose us to career opportunities and experiences which allow us to make better decisions about our careers and we thank Professor Coppola for that."
“All of the different parts—from graduate mentoring, to running CSIE|UM and CALC|UM, to being in the classroom—these are all teaching” Coppola said. Coppola’s leadership skills, cited by these students, are reflected in his favorite part of teaching. While admitting that it was difficult to pick just one aspect of teaching as his favorite, he settled on “pay-it-forward.”
“This profession is quite a responsibility and a privilege,” Coppola said. “I get to be a little part of chemistry for a while and hope that it’s shaped a bit better because I was around.”